I am guilty of forgetting I am an outlier in many of my friend circles and many of you have never, ever conceptualized a society without a police force. Big new ideas like that can be extremely difficult to grasp without a framework to support it, so I am going to try to give you a bit of one so you can at the very least conceptualize what people are talking about when they say “abolish the police,” even if you still do not find yourself agreeing with the stance itself.
Now, this being an incredibly broad and dense topic, I’ll be focusing exclusively on what policing has been and meant in the US. Before we dive into reasons for abolishing the police, let’s cover where they came from. There certainly weren’t any police forces when the colonies were first being founded and, to the best of my knowledge, none of the First Nations had any form of policing at all comparable to what we see today. What the colonies had instead (for the most part) consisted either of local militias (so volunteers who trained regularly) led by elected sheriffs, or mercenaries paid for by wealthy, private interests. The militia plus sheriff/constable mix was largely referred to as a “watch” and it was informal and communal—everything was up to the discretion of the community and their (often elected) leader as to what needed policing and what did not. Hired guards (for example, to make sure your indentured servants and slaves don’t run away from the horrors of harvesting indigo) operated entirely at the discretion of the company or individual who had hired them and their main concern was protecting profits above all else.
These two structures were the primary ways policing in the colonies was organized and they continued even has America claimed its independence from Britain. The first bureaucratic melding of the two into what more closely resembles police forces we have today was in Boston, Massachusetts in 1838. Other major cities quickly began following suit, converting their informal militias into bureaucratic entities accountable to a centralized city government. There is not much evidence for the “need” to do this. There are tons of documents of people decrying the filth and degeneracy and violence of the "mob," but when searching for numbers to corroborate those claims that the American public was completely out of control, they’re just not there. Things like alcohol consumption, arson, medical needs, etc that we can find records for today don’t really match up to the world those decrying the “chaos” of the times insisted they were witnessing.
This effectively means, from the get-go, policing wasn’t established as a norm for the safety of the public, but for the aesthetics of the rich. There was no interest in helping those they called degenerates, they just wanted them swept off the streets and out of their view. They also wanted to have more control over their employee’s habits—hangovers cut into profits, after all. It was a lot cheaper to hire former militiamen etc than it was to hire mercenaries to implement this kind of “order.” From the very beginning, the entire purpose of the police force was to enforce the vision of order the wealthiest citizens had for the city while doing everything possible to protect their profits. From the very beginning, police brutalized and harassed houseless people and immigrants, poor women and black folks. Their primary objective was never public security, health, or happiness, it was first and foremost always appearances and profit.
Now, that’s just how the North did it. The South’s police forces grew directly out of slave patrols. Slave patrols were largely made up of landless whites paid to catch runaway slaves by any means necessary and bring them back to the plantations they’d escaped, to terrorize and abuse slaves in order to deter any thought of revolting, and to punish any slave who’d been accused of breaking any rule on the plantation. They were notoriously cruel. Following the Civil War, instead of disbanding all slave patrols, they were instead reorganized into the South’s policing forces.
Okay, so that’s where they came from, as succinctly as I can manage. They were very literally organized to oppress all working class people for the sake of business profitability, and also to terrorize black and POC people so they’d “know their place.” Now, we’re going to move on to how ineffective modern police forces are in terms of what people assume they’re meant for (protecting and serving the people rather than protecting and serving business and white supremacist interests).
I’ve seen a lot people over the past few years recoil hard to the idea you cannot trust police or that they need to be disbanded altogether and the most common, knee-jerk response is: “well, who are you gonna call when something bad happens?” Rather than answer the “who” part of that question (I’ll get to that next, though), let’s first tackle the assumption within that question that police fundamentally help bad situations rather than make them worse. They certainly don’t have a good track record for helping if there’s ever a black person or person of color who’s in danger. There are multiple accounts of people calling police to help someone they just wanted to be checked in on only for the officers to arrive at the scene and shoot dead the person they’d been called there to help. Multiple accounts—so many it’s folly to consider them “isolated incidents.”
Police are also notoriously bad at helping when it comes to violence against women. It’s pretty hard to ignore their own admitted rate of domestic abuse, the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits, the many restraining orders that were never enforced and so women were stalked and murdered anyway, domestic abuse calls ending in no charges or jail time and only making the abuser angrier, the women police themselves have raped, the women and girls police have blamed, shamed, and laughed at for being raped, etc. Police do not help women. All of this compounded with a culture that largely still hates women and can’t address its internalized misogyny, adds up to a tiny percentage of violent crimes against women ever being reported, with a tiny percentage of that tiny percentage ever seeing a courtroom, and a tiny percentage of those tiny percentages ever resulting in actual jail time for the abuser.
Those numbers seem at odds when compared to the alleged goals of police forces until you realize those alleged goals (protect and serve the people; keep the peace) are essentially just there for PR purposes. Functionally, police forces today are no different from how they began. This is evidenced by wealthy people and businesses almost never being charged when they’ve committed a crime but the poor are relentlessly bullied (e.g. arresting immigrants working without a visa instead of arresting company owners hiring workers without visas). They’re also, functionally, still slave patrols. The over incarceration of black Americans is well documented and indisputable and it is no coincidence that is so and prison is the only legal avenue left in this country for slavery, per the Constitution. Just this year during the pandemic, garbage workers, mostly black men, went on strike in Georgia protesting their low wages for their high risk, necessary occupation. They were promptly replaced with prison labor, the modern day slavery system (human trafficking aside).
Now, let’s get back to the “who” of “who are you going to call when things go bad?” The most simple answer is: someone who knows what they’re doing. Under our current system, we call people (police) to come help with a cornucopia of difficult and delicate problems and those people have less training for that position in society than hair stylists receive for trimming our split ends. They are not required to have clear concepts of the laws they’re enforcing or their nuances. They are not required to learn multiple languages. They are not required to learn cultural differences or practices. They are not required to learn about neurodivergent persons and how to effectively communicate with them. They are not required to learn about physical disabilities. They are not required to learn about trauma responses. A big part of the reason they aren’t required to learn all that is because it’s just too much—it would take a lot of time and money to do all that training and that’s completely opposite the point of the police. They’re meant to save wealthy people time and money, they are not meant to be assets to overall public health.
So, when it comes to “who are you gonna call,” a huge chunk of that answer is going to have to be mental health specialists. Occasionally, you’re gonna need a detective, a skillset definitely not exclusive to police departments. Sometimes who you need might just be a journalist, a meter maid, or the fire department. Maybe who you need is a mediator, negotiator, or just some security back up. Every good part about the policing profession exists independently outside of it.
Now, I know at this point some of you are probably still resisting all this information pretty hard. That’s okay and I just want to remind you at this point that I am not trying to convince you this is the way. I mean, I personally think it is imperative the police be dismantled in order to move forward but this is not my attempt at a persuasive essay, this is purely an attempt at exposition to help you try to understand how anyone could possibly think this is a good idea. Typically, when I get to this point of the explanation with a friend who’s never truly tried to conceptualize a world without police, they throw their hands up and say: “But what about the violent drug addicts? What about home invasions and hostage situations? What about terrorism?!” To address these concerns, we’re going to split this up by the groups perpetrating them: unorganized, petty crime and organized crime.
First, petty crime. Almost all of it is a condition of poverty and here is where my stance in disbanding the police really cements itself—in order to safely and effectively do so, all people would first have to be guaranteed healthcare, housing, and income security because meeting every person's most basic needs is the very best method to reduce crime and violence. There’s a reason petty crime isn’t common in wealthy white neighborhoods and it has everything to do with resources, overall health, and lack of desperation and nothing to do with race. With adequate distribution of resources to every single human being, there is largely no need for police.
Second, organized crime. Now, it’s always difficult for me not to laugh when someone earnestly asks what are we going to do about terrorists without police as though the police themselves are not terrorists. True terrorism (not “antifa,” not anarchy graffiti, not Muslims exercising first amendment rights) requires a lot more training and a lot more intelligence and ability to grasp complicated concepts than the vast majority of police officers have or are capable of. True, some of them would probably be super helpful as infiltrators into the Ku Klux Klan given the high percentage of known KKK members in police forces, but that’s assuming their loyalty truly is to the American public as a whole and not just to white supremacy, which their actions prove again and again it is not. Either way, they aren't particularly effective entities against organized crime and that's probably why we have completely different departments for that sort of thing. (Just to clarify: calling for the complete disbanding of the police still leaves organizations like the FBI and CIA intact). Police are not handling international terrorist threats, their solve rates for murders are abysmal and often highly suspect when they are “solved,” they typically show up long after whatever violence they’re called to help with has occurred, and they are doing almost nothing when it comes to fighting the biggest terrorist threat in America, which is white supremacist groups.
Now, an idea many on the Left stand behind is the concept of the community guard. At its core, it essentially calls for a return to the “watch” style of policing—an informally organized militia with an elected leader. I personally recoil very intensely at this concept since it’s very literally what our current police system was born out of and relies on the assumption there are some good and fair people in every community who are willing to protect any and everyone within that community and I'm personally just way to cynical to see truth in that view. I have a really hard time setting aside my skepticism that such a thing is still essentially just a police force with a different name, but I will try to convey what advocates of this idea claim.
Firstly, the main difference between a community guard and a police force is no special powers. They’re all still just citizens, including the leader. They’re all, theoretically, subject to the same laws, courts, and penalties as anyone else. Secondly, the community is policing itself. People who live in Oakland are the only ones who can police it. You can’t live in Springfield and then go to work policing Eugene. You’re directly accountable to your community—they know where you live, they know who you are and so trust needs to be mutual at all times. Third, they receive no funding beyond community support. Many advocate for something similar to how AA and NA groups are run, i.e. accepting no donations or affiliation with any company or political party, being solely self supported by its members and community and them alone. This (largely) removes the dangers of militarized weaponry being used against citizens, and arbitrary policing done according to profit instead of need. The idea certainly has it merits. I don't personally see how it could be worse than what we have now, though I'd like for us to aim for even better.
To summarize and highlight the purposes of this piece:
- American police were founded to protect wealthy business interests and to enforce white supremacy.
- They have abysmally low success in terms of creating safer communities and helping victims of violence.
- Many of the roles police fill in society are already entirely separate professions that often require more oversight and accountability than the police force does.
- Almost all policing is made completely unnecessary when every person has equal access to food, housing, and healthcare.
- This was intended as exposition, not persuasion. The goal was to help you understand why anyone would advocate for abolishing the police, not to convince you it's right.
- I make no attempt to hide my bias and the side of the argument I am on.
- I will be including more sources for my many claims in this piece later on.